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APU vs CPU: Which processor type suits your needs?

If you’ve been hunting for a new computer lately, you might have stumbled upon the acronym APU in the context of processing hardware. Now, CPUs and GPUs might be more familiar to you, but the term APU could be a bit less clear. This could understandably spark some confusion and raise questions like: Is a computer with an APU superior to one with just a CPU? So, in this piece, we’re going to dive into what an APU actually is, how it sets itself apart from a CPU, and which option you should opt for when faced with a decision between the two.

APU is short for Accelerated Processing Unit. Basically, it’s a type of processor that packs both a CPU and GPU into one unit. Now, a CPU, which stands for central processing unit, is the brain behind all the math and logic happening when you’re using your computer. Now, the GPU takes care of all the graphical stuff.

Simply put, a GPU’s job is all about creating 3D visuals, making animations look smooth, and adding details like textures in games. Technically, a computer could run without a GPU, but it’s definitely a must-have with a CPU. In reality, almost every computer relies on a GPU to show things on a screen. So, let’s see which one suits your needs.

The perks of having an APU

So, the APU label is thrown around a lot when talking about processors that can do both regular computing tasks and handle graphics stuff like gaming and editing videos. The perks are pretty obvious – squeezing both jobs into a single unit saves a ton of space and energy, especially for tasks that aren’t super demanding.

But, on the flip side, APUs usually can’t quite match up to the more powerful separate graphics cards, like the fancy new Nvidia RTX series. This happens because of limitations in terms of space, power, and how hot things can get. So, for top-tier computers, it’s usually smarter to keep the CPU and GPU separate.

APUs are super common in gadgets where saving space is a big deal. Take the Steam Deck, for example – it’s a handheld device that’s surprisingly good at running modern games, all thanks to its beefy APU. Even gaming consoles like the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X are on the APU train, but they’re specially fine-tuned to keep a good balance between CPU and GPU power.

But in areas beyond the gaming console scene, APUs are mostly found in cheaper computers and those in the middle range, where the graphics part of the chip isn’t a big deal. These everyday computers with APUs have enough graphical juice to handle stuff like browsing the web and watching videos, but they won’t hold up well for gaming or doing intense tasks.

Is APU a better option than a CPU?

Tech-wise, the big gap between an APU and a CPU is that the latter doesn’t pack any built-in graphics. If you stick a CPU into a motherboard and skip the extra graphics card, you won’t see any visuals on your screen. But guess what? In reality, that’s not always true. Most computers will actually show images just fine when you hook up a monitor, even without a separate graphics piece – it’s kind of a marketing twist.

Intel, the big player in processing for a good long while, has never really used the word APU to sell its processors, even though a bunch of them come with built-in graphics. Instead, you might have seen stuff like “Intel i5 CPU with Iris Pro graphics” on their marketing spiel.

Now, looking at AMD – they’ve been making a strong comeback in the world of desktop computers, and they’ve been pretty known for pushing the APU term. So, naturally, their latest chips are also labeled as APUs in marketing and on the product itself. It’s not like either company owns the exclusive rights to that term, but most folks who geek out over this stuff usually link APUs with an AMD chip.

So, here’s the deal – when you snag a computer, chances are it’s rocking something like an APU under the hood, no matter what logo is slapped on it. But hey, you can totally still grab processors without the built-in graphics, and some folks putting together systems might go for those to cut costs a bit.

Which one should you opt for your next computer?

If you stroll into a huge electronics store, you’ll spot only a few computers labeled as APUs. But here’s the trick – lots of those budget-friendly computers actually have a single chip doing both the CPU and GPU jobs. So, if you don’t spot the APU tag, just peek at the model number on the chip to figure out whether it has built-in graphics.

Pay attention to that model number if you’re grabbing a computer with an Intel chip. If it has an “F” at the end, it’s a CPU without the built-in graphics. So, you’re gonna need a separate graphics card all the time if you want to use that computer with a monitor hooked up to it.

When you’re piecing together your own computer, that’s when the decision between an APU and CPU really kicks in. See, for most gamers who usually pop in an external graphics card, the built-in graphics in an APU might feel like a bit of a waste when you think about cost, power usage, and how snappy things run.

If you’re all about gaming and plan to throw in a separate graphics card, then you can skip the APU (or a CPU with built-in graphics). But if you’re after a workhorse for stuff that doesn’t demand heavy 3D action, then an APU could be right up your alley.

Is it the same for laptops?

Things shift a bit when we’re talking about laptops, especially when it comes to squeezing out more battery life. The deal is that standalone graphics cards generally guzzle more power compared to APUs, which have this neat advantage of being tightly hooked up with the CPU. So, even if you’re getting a gaming laptop, it’s smart to have integrated graphics onboard to boost that battery life when you’re not plugged in.

The cool part? When it comes to laptops, you usually don’t need to choose between an APU and a CPU – most laptops come with a CPU that’s got built-in graphics (an APU). And those slim and light laptops? Yep, they’re mostly APUs too. So, don’t sweat the choice between APU and CPU when you’re laptop hunting.

Vishal Kawadkar
About author

With over 8 years of experience in tech journalism, Vishal is someone with an innate passion for exploring and delivering fresh takes. Embracing curiosity and innovation, he strives to provide an informed and unique outlook on the ever-evolving world of technology.